Sarah Robinson stood in the doorway of an outdoor, covered waiting area and called names from a list. She smiled at a man in a brown patterned shirt tucked into tan pants.
“Ooh, spiffy,” she said, prompting the man to smile and sneak a peek down at his shirt. “Is that new?”
After a few more seconds of pleasantries, Robinson called out a name again. Some of those waiting had shown up a half hour early to get their names on the sheet. It was Friday afternoon at the Berkeley Food Pantry, and there was weekend grocery shopping that needed doing.
The pantry has helped those in need for 50 years. While the eyes of the nation were a few miles away as People’s Park became a counterculture focal point of pitched battles between protesters and the National Guard during the spring of 1969, Dorothy Noble began feeding the hungry people of the North Oakland Parish.
The operation started in Noble’s home, but grew so big, so quickly, she asked for help from the Berkeley Friends Church, of which she was a parishioner. The Berkeley Food Pantry was born.
The pantry now feeds 1,700 people a month, with donations from the Alameda County Food Bank, the USDA, local businesses and private donations. The group uses 180,000 pounds of food annually that otherwise would likely end up in a dumpster.
“The hours haven’t changed,” said Dharma Galang, the pantry’s director and, like Noble, a parishioner of the church. “How it’s done has changed. It used to be done through referrals from agencies like the Red Cross. It was mostly home delivery. A few years ago, we moved from food bags to food choices. Now it works more like a store.”
Customers (though no money is exchanged) sign up to be on the list. Calls to enter the small room on the church’s south side begin at 2 p.m. Usually using their own bags, people check in with a volunteer seated behind a laptop at a small table, who may or may not ask for identification. He asks how many people live in that person’s household, how many are children, and sends them to another volunteer, who guides them through the space.
Typically, depending on whether the customer shops for themselves or for a family, there are restrictions on how much they can take from each station: meat, dairy, canned items, specialty items, and fresh produce, with variations at every station, depending on the day’s donations. Many are seniors on fixed-income, though the pantry also sees college students.
Despite the solid economy, Galang says rising housing costs are straining budgets to the point where even people with decent jobs occasionally need help.
“There’s definitely a lot of people we see who are transients or have mental health issues,” she said. “But it’s like the bus station – we see everyone. If people get one unexpected medical bill, it’s like ‘Do I pay the medical bill or do I eat?’”
“It’s emergency groceries,” Galang said. “It’s Berkeley and Albany residents, but if someone comes from Oakland, we wouldn’t turn them away.”
Alameda County has about 1.5 million residents and about 13.4% of them experience food insecurity — the inability to buy enough food to eat — each year, according to Healthy Alameda County. California Food Policy Advocates believe the percentage is higher. About 11% of county residents live in poverty, and about 53,000, or 21.7% are food-insecure adults, according to a report.
The pantry has two part-time paid employees, including Galang, and utilizes about 50 volunteers during the year. On a recent Friday, about 15 volunteers checked people in, guided them through the process, stocked shelves and refrigerators, and unloaded vans full of food deliveries. The scene moves like a large church event. It’s been happening three days a week for a half-century.
Alex Aguirre is a chef at Options Recovery Center in Berkeley. Part of his job is teaching clients how to create healthy meals.
“I shop with them and, while they shop, I help out,” he said. “A lot of these folks are on welfare or are in rehab. The people here treat people amazingly. They’re awesome.”
Edwina Anderson has been coming to the pantry on and off for years. She said her landlord recently raised her rent, something she has in common with many other semi-regulars at the pantry, as East Bay properties values skyrocket.
“Higher food prices are also bringing people in,” Anderson said. “I come here when I have to. I have income, but it doesn’t keep up. Then gas prices go up.
“When I was young, we were taught you didn’t take handouts. But as more things have gone wrong, you have to swallow your pride, or your children go hungry.”
“It’s amazing,” said Salaman Ayubzai, loading bags into his vehicle. “They’ve got a lot of nutritional stuff, and in my situation, it’s really helping a lot.”
“It helps out so many people,” said Anthony Grajeda. “The (volunteers) are loving and caring and provide the community with a sense of hope. It feeds us healthy stuff – greens, protein dairy. We appreciate it.”
When she is directing traffic at the door, Robinson said she makes a point of remembering names. “We get lots of regulars,” she said. “I try to remember who they are. Giving them a name is important.”
Some customers are elderly, some are in baby carriers, and some wear plaid shirts tucked into new jeans with cell-phone cases on their belt. That includes many who don’t speak English, Robinson said. For them, she downloaded Google Translate on her phone. “Chinese is a little hard because I don’t always know if it’s Mandarin or Cantonese. But this is great.”
The shelves hold items as diverse as mango salsa, fresh pastries, and gluten-free bread, to baby formula and gourmet salads from local food service Thistle. The freshness shines at the produce table, through the bright red of strawberry containers piled high next to the deep green of romaine lettuce and vivid orange of packaged carrot strips.
“The end of the month is usually the busiest time because people start to run out of money,” Robinson said.
Galang said the food bank asks donors for culturally diverse food, like salsa and tofu.
“In 2018, we received a $5,000 grant from the San Francisco Foundation to offer culturally appropriate foods to our visitors,” Galang said. “We have a very diverse group of visitors. Many of them are elderly Chinese who speak little English, or Spanish-speaking households. We used the grant to purchase foods that they would be familiar with and difficult to find at the Alameda County Community Food Bank. For example, we purchased tofu, long beans, and sesame oil.”
Janet Piggins has volunteered at the pantry for three years. “What’s really valuable for me is seeing the broad section of people in Berkeley who don’t have access to healthy food or the luxury of going to a grocery store,” she said. “It’s a good eye-opening experience. People get what they want. People are surprised at the things we have.”
Galang, who has been with the organization for a decade, said it’s gratifying to see people in the community who have benefitted from the food pantry when life wasn’t going so well for them. She remembers a preschool teacher bringing in a class of children to visit the pantry.
“She came up to me last summer and said when she was unemployed and she had a daughter to feed, she came to us for a few months,” Galang said. “She came back with her class, ten years later, and said “thank you. It helped.”
The Berkeley Food Pantry is open from 2 to 4 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The Berkeley Friends Church is at 1600 Sacramento Street. For details, call 510-525-2280 or go to www.berkeleyfoodpantry.org.